Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa
Te Rau Herenga O Aotearoa

Life as a librarian in St Lucia

By Nicole Gaston. 

For me, 2016 has been a year of personal, professional, and global upheaval!

I began the year by making the decision to resign from my role as a lecturer in the information and library studies team at the Open Polytechnic to take up a volunteer role on the other side of the world with the St. Lucia Public Library.  This seemed like a crazy decision to  a lot of people (my mother in particular), but after a period of existential crisis, a growing disenchantment with academia, and more generalised sense of professional frustration, I thought a change of scenery and role was what I needed to help me rekindle my love for librarianship.

St. Lucia

St Lucian flag

Figure 1- St. Lucian flag -  representing the Pitons

So in March I relocated to a tiny Caribbean island, and began adapting to an entirely new way of life.  One in which it was 32 C all the time and footpaths were non-existent.   While my previous experiences living in Africa and Southeast Asia gave me some idea of what to expect, I also knew the Caribbean to be home to posh tropical holidays, and don’t think I realised quite how surprising this new place would be.  Stray cats and dogs roamed the streets, open gutters bred mosquito larvae, I got Zika, and the library didn’t even have a catalogue of any kind!  I thought I could whip everything into shape with my New Zealand/American sensibilities, expertise, and work ethic.  Now, I’m not sure if that was wishful thinking or pure delusion.

After 40+ hours of travel, I touched down on the southern coast of St. Lucia.  An hour of driving twisty narrow roads through mountains and jungle brought me to the nation’s capital and my new home – Castries.  St. Lucia is named for St. Lucy, the patron saint of vision, and also called “Helen of the West”, due to its renowned beauty.  It’s most notable for its twin volcanic cones the “pitons”.

Figure 2- Obligatory Piton photo

The island was inhabited by indigenous Carib Indians up until European colonisation in the 16th century, which brought with it African slaves, south Asian indentured servants, periods of French and British rule, and a plantation-based banana and sugar cane export economy.   It is in the middle of the Windward Islands chain, with Martinique (France) about 30 kms to the north, and the island-nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to the south, followed by, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago,  and South America, and Barbados to the East. The island’s area is 617 km2 and has a population of about 180,000.  The population is now primarily Afro-Caribbean (96%), with strong cultural and linguistic ties to Africa, France, and the United Kingdom, of which St. Lucia was a territory until independence in 1979. The official languages are English (taught in schools, spoken in government) and Kweyol or Creole, a family of languages spoken throughout the Caribbean which combines syntax of African and Carib origin with a primarily French-derived vocabulary.  Since independence the economy has come to rely primarily on tourism, though bananas, cacao, and sugar cane based spirits are still widely produced for export.

 

Working

I was recruited by an American volunteer organisation to work with the St. Lucia Public Library (SLUPL) on implementing the Koha ILS across the 17 branches of the library, and provide staff training and support.  My official role was “Information Services advisor and trainer”.  After a week of orientation with the host organisation, in which all aspects of health, safety, and admin were covered in agonizing detail, I was sent off to my own apartment and given vague instructions on how to get the bus to and from the Central Library.    

My main workplace, the Central Library of SLUPL, is a Carnegie library, built in 1924, and expanded in the 90s with an adjoining building with a confusing layout with a rabbit warren of desks and collections and a near complete lack of signage. 

Figure 3 - Central Library of St. Lucia

The 16 branch libraries and mobile library provide service to most of the communities and towns on the island. 

 

The SLUPL is within the St. Lucian Ministry of Education, and as a direct result its priority is children and young people.  While the MOE provides funding to cover staff salaries, minimal building maintenance, and some other costs, for the past 20 years it has not provided any collection development budget, and therefore the vast majority of the resources held by SLUPL is old, outdated, or the result of gifts and donations. 

Ambiguity

An overarching theme of my experience was ambiguity.  While I had an official job description, not only did my host organisation, work partners, or supervisor not really give me a great deal of guidance on what they expected from me, I had no clear understanding of what my role was, or my responsibilities.  What was my relationship with my work partners? Or the host volunteer organisation?  These could all be defined as ambiguous, and led to a great deal of uncertainty and navigating of those relationships within my first few weeks. 

Not only were relationships, roles, and responsibilities ambiguous, but processes and reasoning was a complete mystery to me.  Some things did make sense – the library had a completely functioning paper based circulation system in all its branches, and processes for registering patrons, accessioning new items, maintaining vertical files, and even indexing periodicals, all firmly based on sound pre-computerisation LIS principles.   While none of the libraries had card catalogues, the librarians knew their collections and the Dewey Decimal system, and could help most any user find the resource they wanted.  These processes did not disobey my understanding of the universe.  However, things like making a phone call, communicating with other staff, attending meetings, dealing with patrons, all completely mystified me.  Not only did I not understand the processes, but I didn’t understand the reasoning for doing many of the things they did.  And I can honestly say I still don’t!

One thing in particular that completely mystified me was the way in which individuals regarded their roles and their time.  One library staff member said “In the private sector you can make more money, but you can get fired.  In public sector, you can’t get fired”.  Unemployment is high in St. Lucia, and the St. Lucian government is the largest single employer on the island.  In what I believe in an attempt to simply create more jobs, the civil service is unnecessarily bloated, and the main branch of the public library particularly overstaffed.  Even when a direct supervisor was only a few metres away, I saw little evidence of any “work” being done.  “What do they do all day?” I asked one of the busier staff in the library, the administrator.  “Watch people’s business” she told me.

Resourcing

Or, lack thereof.  No money for books, printer toner, paper, signage, supplies, computers, etc.  It put into perspective how even a poorly resources library in New Zealand is lucky in comparison.   Other Ministries were well funded, but the library seemed to be at the bottom of the list when it came to government spending.

Projects

Because my role was so ambiguous, and the Koha project on hold for about 4 months while the technical department manager was away, I looked for other opportunities to collaborate.  I worked with teachers in 2 small villages to run student librarian trainings in their primary schools.  I organised a poetry workshop.  I also read to primary school students at 2 schools during “reading month”, and worked with some of the branch librarians to develop SLUPL’s first ever collection management policy (which focussed on weeding, gifts, and donations, due to aforementioned circumstances).

I also worked with an NGO to develop a collaborative summer programme for secondary school students in which we visited library branches and taught workshops on filmmaking.  The project culminated in an island-wide filmmaking competition, and included embedded digital literacy and information skills.  I also helped the Micoud Branch of the SLUPL apply for and win an EIFL.net Public Library Innovation award, for which the librarian had the opportunity to travel to the 2016 IFLA World Library Congress to accept the award.  And I taught a Zumba class to a bunch of kids as part of the Soufriere Public Library summer school holidays programme!

Figure 4- Student librarians at Laborie Boys Primary School

I worked with the National Association of Library and Information Professionals (NALIP) in St. Lucia to help strengthen the organisation.  In particular the organisation faced the challenge of building a stronger library and information sector with no budget, amongst other barriers.  One serious issue was a lack of tertiary level professional qualifications in LIS available in the region.  St. Lucia’s only tertiary education provider had previously offered a Library Technical Assistant (LTA) 2-year degree, however since 2013 it has ceased offering any courses in the programme.  Individuals wishing to obtain qualifications in LIS had to either relocate to the University of the West Indies campus in Jamaica to study, or study with distance providers based in the US or UK at prohibitive costs for most.  The lack of feasibility of obtaining qualifications led to what I saw as a widespread lack of professional identity in the country.  Most staff assigned to work in the libraries I visited had applied for general civil service roles and been assigned to a library.  They had no specialisation, background, or interest in working in LIS, and treated the role accordingly.   In my opinion, the lack of qualifications, professional identity, and resources were each responsible for and the cause of each other in a circular cycle of dysfunction, that I also believe has wide-reaching impacts for St. Lucia, such as low literacy rates, high unemployment rates, and some of the highest per-capita crime rates in the world (St. Lucia is ranked 16th in the world for per-capita homicide rates). 

Like LIANZA, NALIP as a professional association is built upon the time and energy of its members who often perform their roles supporting the wider profession outside and in addition to their normal workloads and professional responsibilities.  Despite having qualified and able executive board members, the lack of resources and time led to very little activity on the part of the organisation, which again is tied into many of the challenges the sector faces, as the association has little capability to support the profession more widely.  

In 2016 I also had some major personal milestones – I became a New Zealand Permanent Resident, had my first book chapter published, learned how to use SnapChat, and finished a qualification in designing and facilitating eLearning! Go me!

Not a tourist

Today St. Lucia’s economy is primarily tourism-based, with the number of visitors arriving annually far exceeding the population of the tiny island.  The appeal of the island to tourists is obvious – the  Caribbean sea boasts year round warm, clear, brilliant turquoise waters, and its location makes it only a short flight from major population centres.  The majority of tourism caters to luxury-all inclusive markets, with most resorts owned by overseas corporations, who have tax-free arrangements with the St. Lucian government.  Therefore, little of the income brought into the country through tourism actually stays in the country.  Nevertheless, the number of tourists coming to the island provides opportunities, and the Central Library was a popular spot to visit for cruise ship passengers in particular.  Even so, for reasons unknown to me, my suggestions to the library to have SLUPL merchandise available for sale to tourists was met with little interest.

As a volunteer, I was paid a living allowance that meant I could afford basic expenses, but anything geared towards tourists was far out of my price range.  Some things, like the beach, were free, but living and working in a place is very different from being a tourist there.  My days consisted of waiting in the hot sun for a bus that had no schedule, sitting in a library with continually broken air conditioning, squeezing into 15 seater vans to branch libraries, $10/kg broccoli, and my un-air-conditioned flat behind a bar that stayed open until 2 am (trying to get to sleep while listening to awful Whitney Houston karaoke renditions or blasting Soca).  As I walked from the bus stop to the library, I generally got sexually harassed no less than 3 times, and when I didn’t want to buy something from someone, the vendor would accuse me of being racist.  I got home from work at 6 pm, and was usually too tired to do much other than make dinner and go to bed.  I did try to engage as much as I could, learn about St. Lucia and Caribbean culture, and try different foods.  I made quite a few friends, and really enjoyed learning about Caribbean history, traditions, art and music.   I also enjoyed St. Lucian English, picking up lots of great West Indian phrases (I know what liming and wining are now!).   St. Lucian carnival was probably an experience I will never forget!

Figure 5 - Carnival

One aspect of St. Lucian culture I appreciated was what seemed to me like overwhelming body-positivity and appreciation for bodies in all shapes and sizes.  I also enjoyed Rastafarian subculture (and in particular, ital cuisine!) a belief system widely represented and imitated through music and media, generally through what I now see as reductionist stereotypes.

Returning and reflecting

While I was in St. Lucia the newly elected prime minister said “we don’t need to build libraries anymore” during an interview, suggesting that a Kindle is all St. Lucians need. (6 minutes 10 seconds)

There is widespread public belief that the library is obsolete – a view that is not unjustified, considering the state of theSLUPL and its lack of resources.  Like many New Zealanders, the St. Lucians I spoke to thought they could find any and all information they could possibly need through their mobile smartphone.  Unlike most New Zealanders, St. Lucians didn’t have access to services such as EPIC or Overdrive through their public library. 

After 7 months in St. Lucia I began to get a bit jaded about I saw as an unwillingness for people to try to help themselves.  The Koha project had still yet to even begin, and I was missing my sweetheart back in Wellington.  Upon reflection I decided what I observed was a kind of systemic learned helplessness, perhaps a result of a lack of autonomy.  Regardless of the cause, the result is that libraries, and the entire country, are underdeveloped.  On the other hand, “life in St. Lucia is sweet” as one of my neighbours said to me.  I believe there is something we can learn from their model of work-life balance, and time orientation.  Since I came back from St. Lucia I have found myself continually time-poor, always rushing from one thing to another.  Part of me misses being on island time, and not feeling like I was wasting precious time if I just limed with my girlfriends at the beach for an entire day, drinking multi-coloured cocktails. 

Another part of me is so glad to be able to be efficient again and have access to resources, footpaths, and recycling services.   Sunset watching became my legit hobby.

 

Since I returned I have started a new role with Services to Schools at the National Library, which again has brought about profound changes in my life.  Shifting form being an academic to something that is not quite a practitioner has meant a change in my own identity.  Almost immediately after starting my new role, disruptions arrived again in the form of the Kaikoura earthquake, hot on the heels of an unbelievable election result in my home of the United States.  As the year wraps up I can only reflect on what a crazy year this has been, full of challenges and opportunities. Those challenges and opportunities are what makes you realise how lucky you are, and how you can’t take things like footpaths and recycling for granted!  The St. Lucian saying “Too blessed to be stressed” comes to mind, as I look forward to 2017 :)

 

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